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In the movie “Stand and Deliver,” teacher Jaime Escalante tells his largely minority and low-income students: “You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of these two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume you know less than you do.”

He added encouraging words that still resonate today: “Math is the great equalizer.”

Unfortunately, though, this concept has not fulfilled its promise for many Black, Latino and Indigenous students. Even though young children have a natural instinct for math, poor learning experiences are hindering their aptitude development and hurting their opportunities to pursue STEM-oriented careers.

The problem begins in elementary school, with mathematical content that does not enable children to see mathematical connections and coherence. And those early experiences become a severe barrier, preventing students from learning more advanced mathematics in higher grades. Another factor is the dearth of opportunities for elementary school math teachers to deepen their understanding of the content they teach.

Our ability to ensure that “math is the great equalizer” depends on what changes we make in elementary school

The problem is not a lack of programs and policy initiatives aimed at increasing the number of Black, Latino and Indigenous talents in the STEM workforce; it’s that few of the programs recognize that the problem starts in elementary schools with those fragmented mathematical ideas.

Take fractions as an example. Young children don’t learn that fractions are points on a number line, just like whole numbers are. They don’t learn that fractions are also numbers and that all the things they have learned about whole numbers transfer one hundred percent to the learning of fractions.

So instead of capitalizing on young children’s mathematical instincts and enabling them to appreciate the beauty and power of how mathematical ideas connect with each other, we teach them to treat fractions as a completely different “animal” from whole numbers.

In a similar manner, elementary school children are not given opportunities to see that if we use a symbol (be it a, b, c, or x, y, z) to stand for a number, we can do the same things with the symbols as we have done with the numbers. Symbolic expressions extend mathematical thinking from arithmetic (specific examples) to algebra (general).

When these children move on to learn more advanced math in higher grades, this poor mathematical foundation in elementary school often triggers a vicious cycle, in which poor preparation leads to poor performance, which, in turn, negatively impacts self-confidence and self-esteem and creates self-doubt that can eventually lead to a complete loss of interest in math.

Related: To attract more students to STEM fields in college, advocates urge starting in sixth grade

If we want to develop Black, Latino and Indigenous talent for the STEM workforce, we need to start early. The mathematical content fed to young children needs to be rigorous and create a scaffolding for mathematical ideas from arithmetic to algebra.

First, teacher preparation and training programs should have a systematic focus on elementary school mathematical content instead of counting college-level math courses as content training.

Second, professional development should deepen that content understanding, and enable teachers to work with real students in real classrooms.

Third, mathematical content must be both rigorous and teachable to school-age children. Key elementary school mathematical ideas must connect with and build on each other as children progress through each grade, something author Hung-Hsi Wu points out in his new book, “Understanding Numbers in Elementary School Mathematics.

These three suggested solutions will only be possible with support from the mathematics education research community and the state policymakers who govern accreditation requirements. It’s up to these groups to make sure that requirements for elementary school math teachers focus on the content they will actually teach.

This means asking math education researchers to emphasize the connections between elementary school math education and students’ future ability to pursue STEM-oriented careers.

Math education researchers and policymakers bear a huge responsibility for making sure that Black, Latino and Indigenous children are receiving a high-quality math education early on. Our ability to ensure that “math is the great equalizer” depends on what changes we make in elementary school — followed by an increase in demands for advanced math and science courses in middle and/or high schools for Black, Latino and Indigenous students.

And once we’ve addressed the issues in K-12, we need to keep going. We must also reduce the number of Black, Latino and Indigenous students in developmental or remedial math courses in college, and we need to encourage more Black, Latino and Indigenous students to pursue STEM majors and eventually enter the STEM workforce.

STEM careers offer the fastest route for improving one’s social mobility. Let’s ensure that Black, Latino and Indigenous children are provided with a high-quality elementary school math education so that they have an equal chance to participate in STEM careers.

Xiaoxia Newton is an associate professor in the Cato College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

This piece about elementary school math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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